After recent visits to Africa and Asia, it is clear to me that the two continents are growing ever closer. In Ghana, I met so many Chinese, whether overseeing a building site in Kumasi, dining in a five star hotel on Cape Coast or playing roulette in an Accra casino. In Côte d’Ivoire, I found young people to be obsessed with Japanese manga and Korean horror films. During that same trip, I heard that, in Southern Africa, kids rarely miss an episode of their favourite telenovellas from the Philippines.
A few months later, I was in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and surprised to find Africans everywhere: Kenyans, Nigerians, South Africans, Egyptians, Moroccans, and Senegalese. I had lived in Manila in 2009-10 and couldn’t recall seeing a single African at that time, although I did meet a number of Filipino intellectuals who loved the novels of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and other African literary luminaries.
Underlying this cultural exchange is economics. According to Bloomberg, trade between Africa and Asia is set to rise from around $300bn at present to over $1.5 trillion by 2020. Already thousands are migrating in both directions for work, study and travel. Now the third fastest-growing economy in Asia, the Philippines has enjoyed an almost 50% increase in trade with Africa over the last two years. In the 2010 census, 2,573 people from African countries were resident in the country and now the figure is thought to be closer to 3,000.
While in Manila, I wanted to understand how African expats take to Philippine society. What sort of work do they do? How well have they assimilated? What are the differences and similarities between where they have come from and where they are now?
Japhet E. Miano Kariuki is a Kenyan consultant who encourages foreign investment in the Philippines. I asked him what professional opportunities there are for Africans here:
“When recruiters look to my continent, they see a wealth of underused talent: guys with master’s degrees in business or engineering except they’re driving a taxi! It makes sense to bring them to the Philippines where everyone will benefit from their expertise. The recent growth in business process outsourcing (BPO) here has created a demand for French speakers, so now you have people coming from all the Francophone African nations.”
But isn’t there the danger of brain-drain, with Africa losing the skilled workers it so badly needs for its own development? Japhet thinks not, especially if you look at the evidence of the continent’s “amazing growth. In Kenya right now, there is a new government and a new constitution, and a lot of new investment. My friends tell me that if I went back to Nairobi now, I wouldn’t recognise it.”
Furthermore, migrant labour is a two-way street. “There are many OFWs [Overseas Filipino Workers] who go to Africa with transferable skills related to the main industries there: health care, the service sector, mining and agriculture.”
Moreover, Japhet advises a growing number of Filipino companies about doing business in Africa. His job is easy because “China and Japan have paved the way” and there are many similarities between Africans and Filipinos.
“We all speak English (mostly), are committed to our faith and are very family-oriented. We share an attitude to life: we stay optimistic and overcome whatever challenges when trying to integrate into Philippine life. When he moved to Manila in 2011 to manage a call centre, South African Chris Bezuidenhout immediately felt at home. The people are polite “almost to the point of pain” and take pride even in dead-end jobs and miserable living conditions. “These guys in the slums are always sweeping the areas in front of their shacks. When you look around the streets, there is not a soda can, not a cigarette butt anywhere.”
On his first New Year’s Eve in Manila, Chris took a taxi into one such slum whereupon the residents complimented the basketball jersey he was wearing and invited him to spend the night drinking wine from an empty yoghurt cup.
“That was probably the best New Year’s Eve I have ever had,” he says wistfully. “There aren’t a lot of cities around the world where a foreigner can go into a deprived area and say, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ and end up partying with the locals.”
A 26-year-old Egyptian national, Yasmine Mahmoud, has had a more ambivalent experience. While she finds the Philippines “generally easy-going and inter-faith”, her Muslim beliefs have posed problems. Manila restaurant menus are dominated by pork and even meat-free dishes are typically cooked in pork fat. Fortunately, Yasmine has found a handful of eateries that will prepare her food in vegetable
However, what she calls “prejudice about Islam” has had a more significant impact. A human resources expert by training, she was once denied a job simply because of her religion. “The bosses told me that they had enough Muslims from Mindanao [a southern region of the Philippines riven with Islamist separatist tensions] and they didn’t want any more.”
She isn’t bitter about the episode because “the problem is more to do with ignorance than discrimination … When I tell people I am an Arab, they either think I am from one of the Arabian Gulf countries. I tell them I am an Egyptian, I have nothing to do with the Gulf, I only share the language with them – or they think I am a terrorist because of what they have seen on CNN.”
Mercifully, not everyone she meets is so unsympathetic. People over the age of 30 are more likely to ask her respectful questions about her background.
Japhet has been on the receiving end of such curiosity, with people wanting to touch his hair and asking him why, as an African, he speaks English. By contrast, Chris once met a taxi driver who knew a great deal about his native land. “He just started reeling off historical facts about the Boer War and the apartheid era. I thought to myself, ‘How the hell does a taxi driver know all this?’”
How do Filipino attitudes to work compare with home? When Sharon Walilika relocated from Nairobi to teach English in Manila, she found the atmosphere effervescent. “Here people like to have fun in the office – they joke and laugh – whereas back home everyone is so serious. I don’t know where we got that from – is it a British thing?”
Filipinos, she believes, are more collectively-minded too. “They all go to work together and then they all go out together afterwards. When it’s someone’s birthday or someone is leaving, everyone celebrates that in the office. It’s kind of sweet, but after a while I just wanted to go my separate way.”
For Yasmine, this community spirit informs all communication within a workplace. “If an individual has an issue, it becomes everyone’s issue because employees are so close to each other. If you say something to one person and they don’t appreciate it, the message will get out to the whole team. They will respond to you as a group, even if you only addressed that one person originally. They will come and say to you, ‘We don’t like this or that.’”
Chris never ceases to be impressed by the work ethic of his employees. “In South Africa there might be a bus or taxi strike and half the labour force can’t get to work. In Manila, even while a typhoon is raging, people will come in to work wearing flip-flops and shorts and then get changed into smart clothes. That kind of dedication I put down to the fact that you’ve got a population of almost 100 million and everyone’s got a university degree, even the guys who work in McDonald’s. Everyone is so educated that competition for jobs is stiff.”
High-quality, affordable, and delivered in excellent English, Philippine education is another magnet for Africans. The BBC reports that applications for foreign student visas trebled between 2012 and 2013. Aside from teaching English, Sharon is doing a master’s degree in nursing at the Adventist University of the Philippines and finds it “really good … the teachers are friendly and easy-going. When I first came here, there were five African students and now there are dozens. It’s usually a lot cheaper to fly here and study than to do it at home.”
Similarly, Yasmine tells me about a friend – also from Egypt – who saved himself several thousand dollars by studying for his MBA in the Philippines. When I question the transferability of her nursing qualification, Sharon tells me that international standards are upheld by requiring every Kenyan who trains in the Philippines to pass local board exams before they can practise nursing back home.
Manila’s traffic jams and wild roads are infamous, and I wonder how Chris copes with riding a motorcycle here. “While the traffic looks crazy, there is actually a logic to it, a rhythm. Foreigners joke about Filipino drivers being the worst in the world. On the contrary, they are the most helpful in the world. They will move over and make room for me when I ride by. In three years, I haven’t seen a major accident in this city, only bumper bashings. The traffic doesn’t move fast enough for there to be fatalities. Nor will you ever hear people shouting or hooting their horns.”
When Sharon wants a break from the hustle of the city, she drives to the “beautiful hill station of Baguio where the temperature is cool and the air is clean”. It gives her fond childhood memories of the Rift Valley area in Kenya.
The expats I spoke to all seem very content with life in the Philippines. They enjoy a higher standard of living and are gaining invaluable professional or educational advantages. Japhet and Chris are definitely here for the long-haul. As Chris says, “originally I had a vague plan to come to Manila for a couple of years and then move on to Australia. Now I have fallen in love with this place. I would be happy to stay for another decade if not longer.” A ringing endorsement indeed.
Originally published at: http://newafricanmagazine.com/africans-falling-love-philippines/3/#sthash.jkXiXRAH.dpuf